A Non-Linear Dimension
In one of his impressive Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) wrote, “with small steps pass the hours beside our authentic day.”(1) And indeed, no matter how much the business concepts of contemporary economics or the social concepts that seek to control the masses try to subject us to the dictatorship of linear time, we confirm at every moment of our lives that the time that passes between life’s starting point (being born) and end point (dying) elapses in a non-linear dimension that is impossible to classify because we always seek to be in our prime and in the plenitude of things.
Something similar happens when we experience music, one of humanity’s greatest manifestations, whose essential component is sound. Referring to sound in music is not synonymous to referring to any auditory phenomenon. Sound in music is an acoustic (auditory) phenomenon that is generated when a mass that is put in motion vibrates regularly and, in the process (course) of returning to its original motionless state, its vibratory motion is subdivided proportionately (into gradually smaller segments), thus generating epiphenomena or partial (harmonic) sounds that constitute a “family” of the initial acoustic phenomenon, known as the “fundamental” one. Thus, sound can be understood as a complex diaphanous world of measurable audible events that nonetheless constitute an acoustic whole and are thus inseparable or indivisible. Noise, on the other hand, is generated by matter vibrating irregularly, and this does not allow it to have a determined pitch. A sound is an event that creates a possibility: becoming something else while remaining what it is, enjoying an instant perpetuity if it is experienced fully, i.e. as a whole in which nothing is lacking nor superfluous. A sound makes the intangible tangible and allows the possibility of becoming if we also become along with it.
The time of appearance of epiphenomena generated by a body that vibrates regularly when set in motion will vary depending on this same body’s characteristics. Thus, the epiphenomena of a violin, for example, will appear differently in time than those generated by a French horn, a clarinet or a human voice. In other words, each sound-generating body will manifest itself in its own time.
Experiencing the phenomenon of sound in an appropriate acoustic context is a transcendental event, i.e. an action by means of which human beings achieve transcendence by becoming one with nature. This presupposes the capacity to perceive sound as that indivisible multiplicity of consonant (i.e., concurrently sounding/vibrating) audible phenomena that, in and of themselves, form a whole with their own time within space.
Bach referred to this when he said that, “a good musician has to be able to discover the tempo of each piece of music based on the piece’s sound.”(2) At that time (in the early eighteenth century) there were surely plenty of people who called themselves musicians simply because they played sound-reproducing instruments (i.e. “musical instruments”) though they lacked the sensibility to understand these sounds’ value and meaning in the temporal space in which they were generated.
This debasement of music criticized by Bach reached a first nadir in the universal history of music in the early nineteenth century, when German inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (1772–1838) built the first metronome in 1816. The original metronome (metron: measure, nomos: regulating) was an oscillating rod, fitted with a moveable weight, which produced a certain number of beats per minute depending on the weight’s placement on the feather. It could produce from 40 to 208 beats per minute. Beethoven was the first composer to resort to the metronome in order to “protect” his music from non-musicians, i.e. from those who played notes, but not sounds.
This invention was soon excessively abused (if you will pardon the redundancy) since many people thought it spelled the end of conflicts about rhythm and musical tempo: they thus began a pilgrimage (which still seems far from getting anywhere) in the opposite direction of music. Paraphrasing Rilke: “…with small steps pass the metronomes in the opposite direction of authentic music.”
To impose the metronome’s linear time on the phenomenon of sound, whose natural habitat is space-time, is equivalent to not only ignoring the value and meaning of sound, but also to devaluing it to the level of a note (a symbol). Hence, we should not be surprised that this anti-natural (and thus anti-human) process that Mälzel initiated should have led to the following unfortunate event: practically 100 years later, Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) confused musical notes (symbols) with sounds (energies) and “invented” another disaster—dodecaphony, which postulates the elimination of the centripetal function of a sound in a piece of music (as required by nature and the “psychoanalytic psychic identity resulting from the primeval identification with the loved father of individual prehistory as an otherness that upholds an ideal, my ideal”)(3) in order to “democratize” the process of composition by equalizing (de-hierarchizing) sounds. The only thing that seems clear about this “contribution” of Schoenberg’s to the misunderstanding of the musical phenomenon is what I would call musical deafness—a deafness that, in turn, has led to a permissiveness tending towards the kind of banality that justifies everything with a “Why not?”
In music, the Italian term “tempo” refers to what allows the appearance in space-time of the multiplicity of sound phenomena that form a piece of music their intensity, duration, timbre and especially pitch to be perceived as a whole. Indications of tempo were first written on scores in the early eighteenth century. These indications had not seemed necessary before that time, because either one was a musician or one wasn’t—hence, the above-mentioned observation by Bach. Indications like Allegro, Adagio or Andante allowed composers to make their musical intentions clear, and, at the same time, “protected” their work from non-musicians who were unable to understand a piece based on its sound. With the popularization of the musical exercise, this incapacity was also “popularized” in the trade; this led to the need for a second instrument of musical defense and thus, to the appearance of the metronome as the way composers had of indicating the sense of energy that should characterize their work.
But a metronome has an inherent flaw: it can only establish or impose speeds, but it cannot define a tempo. A “tempo” in music, if I may insist on this crucial point of the musical exercise, is not a synonym of speed: a tempo is a becoming, an uttering, a living phenomenon with its qualities and characteristics, which a metronome can only destroy or eliminate. This is why I state, as part of my “Credo,” (4) that “music is time subtracted from time.”
Experiencing a piece of music in its own tempo does not only mean perceiving the rich multiplicity of its sound as a whole and making it one’s own: it means, above all, that one is an integral part of this whole that envelops and invades us, and that thus situates us at the heart of transcendence, which is the ultimate goal of artistic experience. Conservatories and music schools around the world have turned the metronome into the main weapon for destroying music and, consequentially, into one of the principal devices for distancing human beings from themselves. The metronome has become a symbol of our time’s anti-culture, that anti-culture that Freud criticized in his Civilization and its Discontents, because instead of being an experience of cultivating a human being in his or her entirety, “it attempts to regulate erotic passions and to delimit legitimate love through the establishment of rigid taboos.”(5)
And yet, in the Symposium, Plato already made Eryximachus state that, “music is the science of love in relation to rhythm and harmony.”(6) Just as it is impossible to make love while subordinating our passions to the rigid beat of a metronome, we cannot make music while regulating the natural energy of sound and restricting its legitimate scope by imposing a speed with a metronome.
The metronome is also misused in purely rhythmic territory: (irresponsible) solfege teachers often resort to the metronome as an alleged guarantee for achieving the precision of a rhythmic phenomenon. But rhythm (according to Sergiu Celibidache) is nothing but a telltale sign of energy and can only be manifested by the opposition resulting from the tension generated by an impulse (impact) and the alleviation of tension through its dissolution (rebound). Rhythm is an existential manifestation of human beings that becomes evident through breathing: inhalation (tension), exhalation (abatement). It is thus far from being a mechanical process. Hence, rhythm is a sign of life.
Just as breathing is not metronomic and the way it functions depends on our life experiences, rhythm in music, like a trace of energy, acts like an emotional signifier of the intervallic sequence (the different pitch of sounds) or of the quality of the impulses that characterize its energy. No one will ever be able to develop a sense of rhythm by practicing with a metronome. Nor will they be able to develop their auditory sensibility in order to be able to react to the phenomenon of sound. They will be far—very far indeed—from being considered proficient musicians.
In the prologue to his book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine, (7) the celebrated Swiss orchestra conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969) wrote, “music is a unitary sensory act that cannot be reconstructed by the accumulation of events that can only be understood in relation to the whole,” which is in itself a unity, as is the phenomenon of sound. “Music,” Ansermet adds in chapter three of his book, “is an inner, psychic phenomenon that finds the means to signify itself through sounds of a specific frequency, provided that they are perceived as positions of sound in space; the listener can then experience what the composer wished to mean with these sounds only if in him, in his hearing, he reproduces the creative act that generated, in the composer, the course of the melody.”
Thus the musical experience is a transcendental, revelatory experience, so unquestionable in its scope that it led Beethoven to state that, “music is a greater revelation than all the philosophies”: it is something that reveals our authentic day, which we experience in a non-linear dimension.
© Sergio Ismael Cárdenas Tamez, 2007.
Sergio Cárdenas is full-time professor at the National Music School, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City.
Original Spanish version of the article published in El Financiero, Cultura section, January 7, 2007, Mexico City.
© Richard Moszka, 2007, for the translation into English
1.- RILKE, R. M.: Sonnets to Orpheus, Series I, Nr. 12
2.- Quoted from: CELIBIDACHE, S.: Über musikalische Phänomenologie, tryptichon literaturverlag, München, 2001, p. 36
3.- KRISTEVA, J.: Hannah Ahrendt oder: Wiedergründen als Überleben, speech on the occasion of the bestowal of the Hannah Arendt Prize 2006
4.- see: www.sergiocardenas.net
5.- Quoted from GAY, P.: Freud, eine Biographie für unsere Zeit, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2006 (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, Freuds Gesammelte Werke, Band 14, p. 465)
6.- PLATO: Diálogos, Editores Mexicanos Unidos, S. A., Mexico City, 2002
7.- ANSERMET, E.: Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine, 2 v., Neuchâtel, La Baconière, 1961, new edition by J.-Claude Piguet, Rose-Marie Faller-Fauconnet, et. al., Neuchâtel, La Baconière, 1987
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